Poland Waters Down Its Holocaust Law to Placate Trump

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Poland’s nationalist government is learning on the fly how to sidle up to U.S. President Donald Trump while trying to minimize friction with the European Union.

On Wednesday, the Parliament, dominated by the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, amended a law passed in February that called for up to three years’ imprisonment for anyone who would “ascribe to the Polish people or the Polish state the responsibility or joint responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.” The amended version knocks down the penalty for speaking or writing of “Polish death camps” to a fine, and even that likely wouldn’t be applied.

The statute of the Institute of National Remembrance didn’t just alarm Polish Jews, whose history include episodes of both Polish chivalry and Polish brutality during World War II. It caused a public spat with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Polish government that “One cannot change history and the Holocaust cannot be denied.” The U.S. Jewish community was up in arms, too.

Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, hadn’t expected the backlash. In February, he told me it was an unfortunate coincidence that the original law was passed on the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. But the PiS didn’t immediately withdraw the threat of imprisonment, arguing that it would be an effective deterrent to mentions of “Polish death camps” that have long irritated the government. The law, however, wasn’t immediately enforced: President Andrzej Duda referred it to the constitutional court.

Now, Morawiecki has asked the parliament to rescind it without waiting for the court to rule, arguing that criminal punishment isn’t really necessary to defend historical truth. The most likely reason legislators took immediate action is that the PiS government has painted itself into a corner, and it needs to compromise to avoid international isolation.

The government is locked in a separate dispute with the European Union about the judicial reform enacted by the PiS. Poland argues that the changes make the court system more efficient and eliminate its Communist-era legacy. The EU says the measures erode the independence of judges and put courts under too much political control.

Compromise on those reforms has been elusive. On Tuesday, a meeting of EU affairs ministers discussed amendments proposed by Poland but didn’t deem them sufficient. “Let me be very clear, the systemic threat to the rule of law persists and for us to be able to say that it no longer persists, we will need some more steps from the Polish side,” European Commissioner Frans Timmermans said

If no deal is reached, Poland could, at worst, lose its EU vote or, more realistically, some much-needed EU funding. That’s not a particularly realistic threat. The Mortawiecki cabinet has done its best to signal that Poles are good Europeans, expressing support for the EU’s determination to maintain the nuclear agreement with Iran after Trump has unilaterally pulled out the U.S.

That, however, comes into conflict with the PiS policy of being the Trump administration’s best friend in Europe. It seemed to work for a while — the U.S. president came to Warsaw a year ago and made a speech that warmed the nationalists’ hearts — but Trump appears to be less enthusiastic now. When Duda visited the U.S. for four days in May, Trump didn’t find the time to meet with him. 

Alienating the U.S. would be a grave setback for the Polish government, which has been lobbying for a permanent American military base and increased U.S. pressure on Germany to drop a Russian natural gas pipeline project, Nord Stream 2. 

On Tuesday, the state-controlled Polish oil and gas company PGNiG announced deals to buy 2 million tons of liquefied natural gas a year for 20 years from two U.S. companies, Venture Global LNG and Sempra Energy. The agreements are calculated to advance the government’s plan for reducing the need for energy from Nord Stream 2, and please Trump, who has pushed for more LNG sales to Europe.

The retreat on the odious Holocaust law is another overture to the Israel-friendly Trump administration. Now, Jewish groups couldn’t raise objections when Trump meets with Duda or Morawiecki.

The PiS focuses its messaging on Polish sovereignty, but it’s forced to maneuver between the EU, which holds the keys to the country’s economic advancement, and the U.S., which provides its security. An undiluted nationalist agenda tends to alienate both.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.